Saturday, September 15, 2007


There's no better way to learn theology than to deconstruct Starbucks. Let me, however, begin with two disclaimers and a warning. Number one: for the sake of protecting my street creds as a hardcore coffee lover, I must confess that Starbucks is not my favorite...although it is a very convenient and pretty good last resort, sorry Buehrle. Number 2: there ARE better ways to learn theology than to deconstruct Starbucks, like reading the Bible. I was just using hyperbole. Warning: this is a blog version of 19th century writing...which means it's going to be long and descriptive, for a blog entry anyways.

It's the stupid little things in life that can brighten up the mundane blue-gray hue of an ordinary day. As I was walking through a brand new shopping development, I looked from a distance toward a nearby, newly-spawned Starbucks that is yet to have it's grand opening. I'm sure it's not open yet because their building was still gutted the last time I checked. However, I do see people in the familiar green and black uniforms walking in and out. Assuming they're just having their pre-opening training for their new recruits, I walk in closer to get a peek at this world-class training that's been replicated 12,000 times in 40 countries. As I edge in closer still, I see people in civilian clothes hanging out. Preplexed, I presuppose that they have indeed opened without my knowledge, how dare they.

I'm greeted at the door by a friendly barista who explains to me that their official opening is tomorrow and today is a special event for friends and family. As I turn to walk away, the friendly barista tells me that I'm a friend of Starbucks today and welcomes me in. Before I have time to process what's happening, she then tells me that everything is FREE! That word suddenly became my new favorite four-letter word and it transformed this very-familiar, pottery-barn accesorized place into a wonderland. The entire menu was at my disposal. In an instant, I understood what Charlie felt like when he first walked into Willy Wonka's factory.

For the first time in years, I looked up at the menu and actually read it. This was a once in a lifetime chance to exceed my usual $2 Starbucks limit and to get whatever my heart desired, and I was on a mission to order the most expensive drink I could find. I was surprised to find that none of the drinks were over $5.

I ended up getting a Venti Orange Creme Frappaccino. Then I hit my first dilemma. Should I order something else? Like a $8 sandwich or a $3 bottle of water? I should, but it feels weird to. But why not? They did say everything was free. I should clean the place out. No, but I can't, it's too much, I'd feel like I'm taking advantage of them. But they're Starbucks! They don't need the money! Finally, exhausted at my self-arguing, feeling slightly psychotic and not wanting to spoil this wonderful day with regret, I let it end with my Frap.

Then, just like Pavlov's dog, I reach down for my wallet just as I've always done for years. As I'm pulling out my wallet, I hit my second dilemma. This is FREE. Which means I don't pay for it. Arrrrgghhh! This feels so weird. You mean I can just turn and go and wait for my drink, and they're going to just give it to me??? Is this a trick? Are they going to suddenly accuse me of stiffing them and call the police? I did a double take. I pretend to walk off and then quickly turn to see if they would say anything or try to stop me. When nothing is said, I walk away, keeping my eye on the employees to make sure I was doing the right thing. Not paying at a Starbucks counter completely disoriented me. I had completely lost my center!

I felt compelled to pay. There are many things in life that are supposedly free, but there are almost always strings attached. And it's not like we're getting duped by the evil corporation. It's a deception of mutual consent. They tell us it's free, we know full well that it's really not, and in a moment of self-dillusion and greed, we take the deal having both satisfied our consumerist appetite and justified ourselves figuring that we got something for free. You get a free gift with a credit card, but you end up paying many-fold just in interest. You get a free drink, when you purchase a meal. You get your first 2 months of cable free, but you pay for 10. But this wasn't like that at all. They just gave it to you. Just like that.

I learned many truths through this. For one, I learned that when someone gets something completely free, you are compelled to give back what that something was worth. I received a 5-dollar drink, and I felt compelled to give back 5 dollars. When we truly receive the grace that saves our lives from eternal damnation, if we truly believe it, it is in our nature to be compelled to return to the source of that grace and salvation something equal in value...a life for a life.

And that in itself is not a full analogy. Because although we were given eternal life, more supremely we were given God Himself, and for that to happen it cost God His life. That is why we are compelled to worship Him for eternity, because God is of infinite value and there will never be a time when we will ever feel like we've given back in equal value what was given to us.

Secondly, I had a buffet of premium Starbucks coffee and foods that were essentially mine, at least as much as I could consume for that day, but out of fear, mistrust and suspicion of what the friendly barista said, I partook of a relatively minuscule amount. I was blessed with every blessing in the Starbucks realm, but could take only what my faith and understanding in what the friendly barista said would allow (sorry, couldn't help myself).

Thirdly, a guy standing in line was calling all of his friends to come and get the free Starbucks. I think the analogy there is obvious.

But what impacted me the most, although I was ecstatic about getting free Starbucks, was how difficult it was for me to just receive. I don't think I'm over-dramatizing this at all. On more than a few occasions, I've seen people receive gifts with extreme reluctance. Something in the human soul hates getting something for free. We hate not working for it, and we hate getting something we know we don't deserve. When people receive unreluctantly, it's because one of 2 reasons. They truly understand free grace or they wrongly feel entitled to it.

I think life is more full of paradox than we know and today, I discovered the utter joy and inner torment of receiving something for free.


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